Posted on April 30th, 2012 No comments
-by Ruth Abusch-Magder
Usually it is candy that is the source of friction between children and parents at the grocery checkout. This time it was a grapefruit. Not even a good looking one at that. It was a somewhat wrinkled grapefruit that had come from the seconds bin. It had been part of the basket of goods the mother had gathered, but now paying for the groceries, she had put the sad grapefruit aside.
The child pleaded, the cashier looked pained, so did the mother. But there was no room for giving in. The family had reached capacity on their food stamps.
This scene, which I witnessed nearly twenty years ago, has been playing on a loop in my head lately. As I prepare for Shavuot, I have been thinking about leket, peyah, and shichicha, our obligations to leave the gleanings, the corners and the forgot fruits of our fields. That grapefruit in its sad wrinkly state would definitely have fallen into the category of a forgotten fruit, and yet there it was holding out promise for this child.
On that day, I did not know what to do. I could have easily have spared something from my own heavy basket for the child, or paid for the grapefruit. After all the Mishna on Pe’ah (1:2) says that a sixtieth of the field is the minimum amount and as a portion of my purchases it would not have much more than that. But I hesitated and did not act; worried my interference would have caused shame or embarrassment. The following Shabbat I dined at the home of friends and when the girl and her mother showed up, I was even less sure what the right course of action ought to have been.
According to Rashi, the concept of Pe’ah, the practice of leaving the corners of your field uncut, is really about placing part of your harvest in every corner of every field. Building on the Sifra (Kedoshim 1:10) Rashi stresses that we cannot choose who gets the support that is given in the form of Pe’ah, it must be available to everyone so they can reach it with ease it should be placed where it is most easily accessed on the corners.
Food stamps, it strikes me, are our modern American form of the ancient agrarian Jewish traditions for caring for the poor. In line with Rashi’s stress on access, in recent years, policies by the Bush and Obama governments have made it easier for people to qualify for food stamps. But there is also greater need. 1 out of 7 Americans, 43 million people, rely on the program each month.
But it is likely that the extravagance of a sad grapefruit would still be out of reach for most food stamp recipients. The average payout of the benefit is $133/month. This stands in comparison to the USDA assessment that the average family of four spends between $771 and $916/month on food. There is now talk in Washington of cutting significantly reducing the eligibility and benefits of the food stamp program. Not only would that mean the end of grapefruits, but for many the rest of the shopping basket all together.
If there is meaning in the confluence of the two strands of Shavuot, that of the harvest holiday and the celebration of revelation, it may be found in the link between the equality of revelation and the need to share our bounty with everyone.
Posted on March 2nd, 2012 1 comment
Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?
As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.
And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.
Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.
Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.
Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.
In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!
Posted on November 29th, 2011 No comments
Thinking about what we eat is not a new for Jews but the questions we ask today are different, organics and local were given for the rabbis of old. This week we have a special guest visitor to the blog who write powerfully about the intersection between our responsibility to Israel the land and people and the food we eat. Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein is the daughter and granddaughter of Reform Rabbis, who is pursuing her own rabbinical studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She credits her Reform upbringing with inseparably linking Judaism and social justice for her, and with teaching her to engage critically with tradition.
In his now famous poem, “Tourists,” Yehuda Amichai lamented,
Visits of condolence is all we get from them
They squat at the Holocaust Memorial,
They put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall
And they laugh behind heavy curtains
In their hotels.. . .
Amichai’s snapshot shows the quandary that any caring visitor faces when they come to Israel: How to really engage with this place with integrity? What do I need from Israel? What does Israel need from me – particularly when I’m only here for a very little while?
I struggled with this question when I came on Birthright trip in 2004, and again when I came to spend a semester of college here in 2005. When I came back last year as a rabbinical student, I found that this tension only become more sophisticated the more time I spent here.
I will probably live with that tension forever, but I have found at least one small point of resolution. I was eating lunch at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies last October when I heard a presentation given by the director of Bema’aglei Tzedek , a Jerusalem-based non-profit that focuses mostly in workers’ rights and handicap access, based on Jewish values. She described the situation of the working poor in Israel, and the ways in which her organization works to create grassroots, structural change in the Israeli socio-economic reality.
She focused on a project that relies on the active participation of non-Israeli Jews. This is the Tav Chevrati, the social justice certification for restaurants that respect their workers’ rights and provide handicap access to their customers. The Tav Chevrati draws all of its strength from consumers excited about social change. The involvement of American and international tourists and residents is especially valuable, since restaurant and cafe owners feel it is in their best economic interest to cater to the interests of the international English speaking population. Indeed, since the Tav’s founding in 2004, around a third of the restaurants, pubs and coffeehouses in Jerusalem have adopted the Tav, thanks to consumer pressure, particularly from English speakers.
Since the day I heard that presentation, a little over a year ago, I have made sure to eat only at Tav certified restaurants when I go out in Jerusalem, and I always leave a card telling the business owner that I’m there because of the Tav. It’s so very easy. The Tav ensures that the rights of all workers, of whatever background, ethnicity or legal status, are protected. By eating according to the Tav I can encourage a more equitable Israeli society, even as a non-citizen. Even a participant on a 10-day trip can make that choice and be effective, if they let the business owners know that’s why they are there.
I think the Tav is so smart that I now work with it almost full-time. Towards the end of my rabbinical year in Israel, last spring, I decided to stay another year. I received a fellowship through the New Israel Fund/Shatil. I accepted placement with Bema’aglei Tzedek, working as Tav Chevrati Community Coordinator, trying to make Jerusalem a more just city, one tour group, one restaurant at a time.
There are so many ways the Tav could grow. Imagine if Rabbis coming on congregational trips educated all of their participants about the Tav, or if tour groups coming to Israel requested from their tour providers to eat only in Tav-Certified restaurants. Imagine if movements in the US or Europe made public resolutions encouraging their member congregations to eat only at Tav-Certified establishments. Imagine how quickly more restaurants would sign on – and how many lives of dishwashers and waiters and souschefs would be changed.
Amichai’s “Tourists” poem concludes:
“I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Choosing to eat according to the Tav is a delicious way to support all of the men and women here trying to buy vegetables for their families.
Posted on January 24th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.
Bubbe Meises, literally, grandmother tales, have come to be synonymous with superstition. And superstitions are by modern standards ridiculous, right?
Maybe. Or on the other hand. Maybe Not.
A few years ago when my family moved into a new house in a suburb of Chicago, Rabbi Michael Weinberg and his wife Jody brought us a house warming gift, a basket with bread, salt, and honey. The bread and salt, they explained, were traditional while the honey was in honor of the quickly approaching New Year. I have since learned that the tradition of bread and salt seems to likely draw on historic Russian customs of presenting honored guests or new brides with bread and salt as a sign of hospitality and welcome signifying the prosperity of a full larder.
Calling this practice a bubbe meise is not necessarily out of place. While we cannot know exactly how Jews came to adopt this general Russian custom it is not hard to imagine it being passed down in the doing from mother to daughter. As modern Jews, we are unlikely to believe that the bread and salt will be the cause of prosperity, so it is possible to understand it as a superstition.
But that need not mean dismissing this or other similar grandmother tales as valuable to our contemporary Jewish lives.
Instead of rejecting bubbe meise (and by implication the women who believed in them) might we not learn from the process by which Reform Judaism has grappled with the Torah passed through the generations of men? The stories that our grandmothers told one generation to another resonated for them. They held kernels of wisdom and understanding. Distancing ourselves from those truths and those understandings closes off paths to engaging and meaning. In other words, can we look at the specific grandmotherly tales and belief, examine the ways in which they do and do not resonate for us today? Can we reengage and reinterpret with them as we do with tallit or standing for Torah reading?
I believe very strongly that we can and should.
Recently I was asked to bring a spiritual presence to a housewarming for a woman who had moved into a new home after a difficult divorce. While our modern Reform liturgy offers pieces borrowed from other places to contextualize the hanging of a mezuzah, the grandmother tales offered inspiration that not only spoke directly to the situation but also drew from similar contexts in different times and places. Drawing on the North African and Yeminite traditions involving the making of candle, we lit and broke candles to symbolize from which this home represented a break. Considering the salt and bread, we not only connected to the historic hopes for prosperity but also delved into the ways in which bread and salt represented to transfer of holiness from one centralized fixed place, the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem, to the multiple homes that it has lived since.
Before we dismiss the bubbe meise, consider what might be lost if you do.
Posted on November 10th, 2009 3 comments
When I’m not working on Alumni Education, I write, teach and study Jewish food. I often get asked if there is such thing as Jewish food. After all, Jews are not the only ones to smoke meat, eat couscous or make fish into little balls. So when I was asked to put together a short description of Jewish food to sit on the tables at the upcoming HAZON conference I was excited to try and answer the question. The topic is a big one but here on one foot is a succinct overview.
Brisket, barches, blintzes, burekas, kugel, jachnun and shalet. The list of Jewish foods is endless. Since biblical times food has been a central part of Jewish life playing a role in Jewish life, culture and tradition. It would, for example, be impossible to separate out food from the story and observance of Passover. But in many ways Jewish foods have counterparts in other cultures. What for example is the real difference between a kreplach and a wonton? What distinguishes challah from brioche? While it is difficult to define specific foods as Jewish, it is easy to pinpoint some of the forces that have shaped Jewish cuisine. The triumvirate of Jewish food law, food based rituals, and Jewish history have worked together to shape Jewish foodways.
Many Jewish rituals require foods. Bread is blessed on Friday night. Maztah is eaten on Passover. Feasts and gifts of food are mandated to make the carnival festival of Purim truly festive. To celebrate the New Year, the Rosh Hashana table is set with edible omens for the year to come. Jews evolved recipes, such as hamantaschen and honey cake, to meet these ritual needs and enhance the festive nature of celebrations.
Additionally, there are many religious Jewish laws that deal directly with or strongly impact cooking and eating. The dietary laws, kashrut, are perhaps the strongest force in shaping Jewish eating patterns. Based on biblical verses, the rabbinic laws of kashrut prohibit the mixing of milk and meat not only within a given dish but within the same meal. Meat, fish and fowl were further divided into permitted and forbidden. No shellfish, no birds of prey, no pork. Prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath, meant that slow cook dishes became essential elements of the Jewish culinary repertoire.
Working in these parameters, Jews throughout history adapted to the historic and geographic circumstances in which they found themselves. Jews worked with the foods and flavors of the regions in which they lived. Moroccan Jews roasted vegetables and meats with spices and fruits. Hungarian Jews made goulash –but without the cream. In places like Poland, poverty meant that potato dishes became a mainstay of the diet. Expulsions and migrations meant that Jews brought new foods and modes of preparations from one country to another. Artichokes for example arrived in Italy with Jews from Spain.
In America, most of what is known as Jewish food is the Americanized version of Eastern European Jewish cuisine. Some historically Jewish American foods such as bagels and “deli” have crossed over into the mainstream while others such as chopped liver have fallen out of favor. As we sit here today, eating together and talking food seriously in a Jewish context, we are playing a part in a long and evolving conversation about what it means to be Jewish.
Questions for reflection:
Is a blueberry bagel Jewish? why or why not? what about a bacon bagel?
What is more Jewish? kosher sushi or ham and cheese on matzah?
Is the fact that a food is made by or eaten by Jews enough to make it Jewish?
This post was cross posted at http://jcarrot.org/
Posted on September 30th, 2009 No comments
Sukkot is a wonderful time to celebrate not just the bounty of the earth but also the diversity of Jewish life that comes together to make up the Jewish community. Both of those elements are joined in the blessings we say over the arbat haminim. Meant to represent the bounty and diversity of the plant world, the lulav, etrog, hadas, and aravah also stand in for the coming together of the disparate elements of the Jewish people. As we learn in the Talmud, a person does not fulfill the obligation of arbat haminim until “the four plants are bound together in one cluster. [As] it is with Israel’s endeavor to conciliate God, which is successful only when all of Israel are together in one cluster.” Menachot 27a.
While it is wonderful to literally invite the diversity of our community into our sukkot by hosting new guests in our sukkot, the tradition of ushpizin suggests that we can extend our reach by use of metaphoric invitations and ritual actions to create an atmosphere that celebrate the breadth of Jewish cultural experience. Just as we invite different Jewish historic figures into our sukkot, we can invite Jews from different geographic locations into our sukkot by cooking foods from those communities and discussing the customs, history and character of those communities.
Overwhelmingly, American Jews have a limited knowledge of Jewish food, relying primarily on a repertoire of Eastern European flavors and favorites. Sukkot which has fewer food traditions than other holidays is the perfect opportunity to branch out.
The foods of different Jewish communities encapsulate much about the history, location, and customs of the particular place and time from which those foods originated. With the magic of the internet we can listen to regional music while you prepare dishes from that locale. The cookbooks and websites from which recipes come often offer much by way of context and cultural insight.
The possibilities are endless so I have chosen just two examples and would love to hear from others who cook up other dishes and invite the diversity of the Jewish people into their sukkot.
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